This Mouse Could Save Your Life ; the Recent Pro-Vivisection Demonstrations Are Prompting Many in the Green Movement to Rethink Their Stance on Animal Testing. Steve Connor Argues That an Intelligent Debate Is Long Overdue

Article excerpt

If you are confused about the rights and wrongs of animal experiments, you can be forgiven. Protests on the streets of Oxford for and against the university's new scientific research centre have done little to dispel the smog of propaganda that has descended over the animal debate.

We have been told testing on animals reveals nothing about people. We hear about alternative research that is just as good if not better than animal experiments. We learn about the children who have suffered because scientists and drug companies are obsessed with the irrelevant results of experiments on animals.

Yet few realise that Britain has one of the toughest laws in the world governing animal experiments. Animals can only be used when scientifically justified - their use in cosmetics testing was stopped in 1997 in Britain. Scientists and their research institutes also have a legal obligation to use alternatives to animals whenever possible. If they can use alternatives, not only is it incumbent on them to do so, but it can be cheaper.

There are fewer animal experiments now than 20 or 30 years ago mainly because of developments in techniques that can replace the use of living animals. Scientists can some-times carry out a test on people rather than laboratory animals, or they can try to "model" a living system or medical problem using powerful computer software. But, as the cosmologist Stephen Hawking once said: "Computers can do amazing things. But even the most powerful computers can't replace animal experiments in medical research."

Organisations opposed to animal experiments take the opposite view. They say that not only do alternatives to animals exist, but they are better. They also claim that relying on the results of animal research is dangerous. "Reliance on animal experimentation amounts to gambling with our children's' health," says the antivivisection group Europeans for Medical Progress (EMP). "Time and time again, misleading results from animal experimentation have proved tragic or fatal when applied to children and babies. And there are much better options."

The thought that animal experiments directly harm people, that they are next to useless for medical progress and that their only outcome is unnecessary suffering is surprising, if not alarming. But what evidence is there to back up such claims?

This was the question posed last year by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) when it was investigating a complaint against EMP (then called Europeans for Medical Advancement). For instance, the ASA was interested in the evidence to support this claim by the group: "Treatment of childhood leukaemia has also improved dramatically, thanks entirely to ingenious research on cell and tissue cultures - not to animal experiments."

Or this statement: "The biggest obstacle in the search for cures for cancer and many other diseases of childhood is our irrational dependence on animal experimentation, which has cost far too many thousands of lives." EMP also claimed the leukaemia drug Glivec had been discovered entirely through test-tube research not involving animals.

When the ASA challenged the group to support these claims, EMP cited research dating back to the 1940s and 1950s. Understandably, the ASA ruled that people reading the group's literature are hardly likely to consider 50 or 60-year-old research as recent improvements. The ASA also found that Glivec, a recent treatment for chronic myeloid leukaemia, was developed with the help of animal research.

But opinion masquerading as fact seems to be a hallmark of the animal debate. EMP has stated, for instance, that "uncritical reliance on the results of animal tests can be dangerously misleading and has cost the health and lives of tens of thousands of humans".

This opinion on the subject of tox-icity testing lies at the heart of the argument against the use of animals in medical research. …